Tuesday, September 16, 2008

a smile (part 3)

sadness is such an encompassing emotion. such an overpowering emotion. it can derail you with such ease that you can find progress to feel so hopeless. it can propel you so deep into yourself, that everything else just fades away. everything else feels fake or invisible. so, if you're like me, you bury it. you bury it and replace it with other, less debilitating emotions.

we walked the streets of downtown siem reap for most of that first day. robert and monique shopped, we ate, we had beers, we took in this strange, new place. i found myself surrounded with a sadness i could not bury, for the first time since years before. since quiet days in san francisco. since the days when my heart was so broken i felt it could never be repaired. since i learned that the only way i could overcome the overpowering, encompassing, hopeless sadness was to bury it. for years and through vast turmoils, i'd been burying it all. and now, now it was everywhere.

we'd eaten an early dinner. and much like our first meal, and every meal to follow, it was amassed in a shroud of watchful hunger. it was impossible to ignore. to deny. to escape. the truth was i didn't want to. for the first time in so long, i didn't want to see beyond the sadness and the pain. this could not be buried. it was too big. too universal. much too much. and i felt so useless. so limited. so trapped in inability. i'd spent the last week celebrating how much bang i could get for my buck in southeast asia. i'd bought extra food when i couldn't decide what to eat. i drank multiple beers and smoothies. i was living in excess. i was everything i claimed to hate here in the states. and here, all around me, was the consequence of our excesses. more starving and homeless and helpless people than not. kids selling themselves for a meal or a moment off the street. it was much too much.

i scraped my meal into a to-go box. and i found a boy. i don't remember much about his clothes, whether he wore any at all. i remember finding him, sitting alone in the dark. on a street corner. on his knees and in his own world. he was completely oblivious to everything happening around him. he was not begging. he was not crying. he was simply alone and much too young to be alone in a place that like, in a time like this. we still can't quite agree on how old he was. i say five or six. monique thinks eight or nine. all the same, any age is too young to be living that life. or barely living it at all. but the reason i don't remember what he was wearing, is the smile on his face. we caught him completely by surprise when we approached. and from what i can tell, he spoke no english. but when i handed him the box of food, i had never and have not since seen a smile like his. it was the biggest, most sincere, most breath-taking, heart-breaking smile i'll probably ever know. over a box of fucking leftovers. even in writing about it now, i get choked up. it was the pinnacle in a life-changing trip. it was what i will remember most about those three weeks. it is, hopefully, what i will remember most about my life. a moment that changed who i am as a human being.

we walked back to our hotel in silence. i could not form a word to save my life. i was ambushed by emotion. i was over-taken by the years of repressed sadness. everything amounted to that moment. and i could no longer hide from it. it was here to stay, at least, for a while. and it was such a strange sadness. it was a sadness i'd previously wanted to write about; a sadness i thought i'd understood. and it was one that suddenly had me so tight i could hardly breathe. how do you weigh personal sadness against universal pain? is it selfish to do so? is it human? is it wrong to deny our own pain in the face of greater problems with grander solutions?

for the first time i years, i was overcome. by just a smile. all this for a smile.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

the fear you're glad you've had (part two of many parts)

i remember sitting in the little room, alone, in respiration of the doom and gloom of what i knew was to come. people don't often make you wait in little rooms, alone, for good news. i counted months backwards on my hand. i counted back several times, and weighed in the err of testing with the time it takes to spread. and i knew. within a year, this would become the second most frightening moment of my life. but in that moment, right then and there, it was pretty on top. looking down, over the precipice of such great heights. just waiting for the inevitable push. when the door knob finally turned i looked up to find the eyes. in any silence, eyes will spell out the basics of what you need to know. and in her eyes were a deluge of words it would take me weeks to repeat. and in my eyes was the deluge she could never understand. no one ever asks how; simply what and when. the how, to me, was what i couldn't bypass. it was the murdering blow.

i was deaf to all her words. i sat, lost in the haze of all the things i could have done differently, to avoid what happened. to avoid what ultimately led me to that moment. i shouldn't have answered the phone. i shouldn't have opened the door. i shouldn't have opened that bottle of wine. i sat, deaf to her words, lost in a haze. nothing she said mattered. nothing mattered. this was the penultimate pain and devastation.


by my first morning in siem reap, i had been traveling for close to a week, during which time i'd been in over 4 time zones. morning was irrelevant. thank god for sunrise, which was the only gauge my body had for both time and duration. when i woke, i found myself face down in the shit-stained sheets. robert had taken up the entire (single) pillow in the twin bed we were sharing, which i'd covered with a t-shirt of mine. monique had been waking up for a few minutes as well, as now robert began to. we decided we would not shower at the guesthouse, and that we'd check out immediately. i brushed my teeth with bottled water over the sink. i washed my muddy shoes and pants in the tub, no doubt from the streets of poipet. and then we were off.

we had no plan. we'd simply walk along the river, until we found a suitable guesthouse or hotel. it was early and still fairly quiet. in comparison the poipet, siem reap was a beautiful city. despite the prior evening, i felt an immediate affinity for it. i remembered how as a teen i hated how my mother thought all of mexico was disgusting, based solely on her time in ensenada, of all places. i decided i would not let poipet have the same effect on all of cambodia. the river that runs through old town siem reap is beautiful. it's only about thirty feet wide, and lined with continuous park on both sides. bridges cross it at every other block, and trees run down its perimeter.

we walked along past several guesthouses until we came upon the ta prohm hotel. it looked nice. it looked very nice; especially after the slew of guesthouses we'd stayed in thailand and korea (all of which were very nice. but this, this was borderline fancy). since robert had been covering hotels, i didn't feel comfortable having an opinion, either way, on any lodging. whatever he wanted to do was fine by me (save for in the prior night's grim exhaustion). he looked at monique and i, looked back up at the hotel, then asked what we thought, with a smile on his face.

the hotel was gorgeous, and only $50 american per night, for a suite. the suite had 3 full beds, a sitting area, and was probably about 550 sq. ft. i was so happy to have a nice place to rest my head for the next five days, that i immediately flopped onto my bed, grinning ear to ear. we decided that it would be a good to relax. we'd hold off a day on angkor, save for a sunset visit to angkor wat. we ate breakfast at the hotel and then set of for our first venture through siem reap.

siem reap maintains a strange juxtaposition: beautiful, french colonial architecture, with lush landscapes, that happens to be lined with dirt, and full of the most impoverished people i've ever seen. we were immediately struck by the hordes of homeless. it was hot and sticky and dirty, and so we sought refuge in the indoor markets and shops and eventually tequila. we'd found a taqueria in a small alley, with the typically cheap eats and drinks.

we'd been enjoying a pitcher of margaritas for no more than five minutes, before a man approached our table from the street. he had stumps for arms, in which he carried a box of books. taped to his box of books was a sign, that read: "i lost my arms in a landmine explosion. i am not a beggar. i am a proud man providing for my family the best i can." the sign was enough to break my heart a little. we'd been aware of the landmines the united states buried through cambodia during the vietnam war. buried, then left behind. we'd read the warnings in our guidebooks, telling us to stay on marked paths when in the jungle. we knew of their presence, but were shocked to encounter their effects so quickly in. you can't help but feel guilty for the actions of our nation, our country, our home. you can't help but feel shame.

his books were all on cambodia's dark history. they told of the polpot regime and the khmer rouge, of the killing fields, of the landmines, of the genocide. they outlined the pain suffered by an entire nation, partly at our hands. and yet, somehow, he was so welcoming and friendly. it was a moving compassion i'd never experienced. you think of all the pain stupid americans brought onto middle eastern people (anyone who looked "like a terrorist") after 9/11; and here he is, welcoming us americans in with grace and dignity.

we spoke for several minutes and each bought a book from him. as he departed, a small boy wearing nothing but a filthy, long t-shirt approached us. he couldn't have been more than eight or nine, and yet alone. "hey mister," he said to robert. "where are you from?" we all replied that we were from america. he smiled.

"the united states of america has fifty states. washington, d.c. is the capital. hawaii and alaska are the newest states. the president is george w. bush." he was the cutest god damned kid on the planet. his slight grin and huge eyes. he carried a stack of postcards, which he offered to us for a dollar. as he talked to us, i watched as at least ten more children passed by. we bought his stack of postcards, for which he thanked us, and then tried to sell us another stack. we apologized profusely. and my heart just sank into my fucking stomach, as he wandered off, barefeet and alone. i thought about how rough the night before was. how us three, grown adults, barely made it one night on our own. and here was this adorable little kid, who does this, in far worse conditions, every day. every night. this existence is all he knows.

as we walked around and back to our hotel, we realized just how dire the situation was. there were homeless, starving kids everywhere. running naked, barely clothed, hungry, starving, begging. forgotten and unknown. completely forgotten and unknown. everywhere you look. everywhere. it was the penultimate pain and devastation. everything else seemed so small and insignificant. how does this exist? how had i been so ignorant? so selfish? so ungrateful? how could we just deny, deny, deny?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

upon entering cambodia (part one of many parts)

i was once asked what the saddest song i know is. i had no idea how truly sad the song was until i woke up in it one night.

i don't know what exactly i expected. i don't think i ever knew. what i do know is that there was no way i ever could have prepared myself for what i was about to experience. we have made a business of burying awful truths. and like landmines, they wait hidden for us to fall upon them. they wait to blow up in our faces.

we crossed from sleepy aranyapratet, thailand into poipet, cambodia late in the night; just as the border was closing. it was like walking into another world; into some war-torn movie set. we're all aware that places like this exist, but we never really anticipate actually encountering them; and are thus content to deny, deny, deny. to go about our shallow lives. to choose our battles wisely, to choose our orders wisely, to choose our words wisely. until you are suddenly speechless.

poipet, cambodia

the stars outshone the city lights, which were few and far between. the stores that lined the run-down road looked more like bombed-out shacks than buildings. there were no trees, no homes, no windows with no bars. dogs and cats and cattle roamed as stray and free as the packs of children who fell upon our entry into the city. within forty seconds they'd robbed us blind; pick-pocketed in the chaos of trying to get our visas and into cambodia in the fives minutes before the border closed. they fell upon us like landmines; because we do imbue the disasters which fall upon us. like the landmines we'd laid down there years before. buried with the denial of the devastation.

no sooner than we could shake our tot thieves were we surrounded by taxi drivers trying to snag one last fare for the night from poipet to siem reap. and they all wanted twice what the guidebooks say the trip is worth. they wanted it all up front, all in american dollars. they claimed to need it for gas. their gas tanks were empty, they said. every exchange of our debate was followed by quiet rumblings in cambodian. when a price was finally agreed upon, we were ushered into an unmarked car. there was no room in the trunk for our luggage, so we piled it upon ourselves, as we prepared for the long ride ahead. just before our car drove off into the night, a man opened our door to tell us the driver spoke no english. and with that, the door was slammed, the engine ignited, and we were off into the pitch black, barely there streets of poipet.

the road from poipet to siem reap is hardly a road at all. it erratically changes from dirt to gravel, from two lanes to one. there are no streetlamps beside it, no highway lines or street signs. the road is more pothole than pavement. the 75 miles takes 3-5 hours. and at night, you can see nothing. rumor has it that a particular airline has paid an unnamed government official to keep it this way. the road is so bumpy, only the fear keeps the nausea at bay. within the first few minutes we could tell there was something peculiar about our cab. it was unmarked, the driver had refused to ope the trunk for us to put our luggage, which was now weighing heavy upon our tired legs. we were told they needed money up front for gas, but from the passenger seat i could see that the gas tank was full. most off-putting, though, were the packages that clearly filled the linings of the seats we sat upon. they also hid beneath the floor mats in the backseat, robert had whispered to me along the way. and then we pulled off the road.

we parked beside a shack, lit by lanterns and a bonfire. our driver pantomimed that he needed to fill up the gas tank. when he shut the door behind himself, i turned around to robert and monique in the backseat. i told them the tank was full, which came us no surprise to either. we sat in silence and apparent fear for a few minutes. the driver had been gone for a while now, and we all decided it would be best to lock our doors and come up with an emergency exit, should it be needed. occasionally men would peer out at us from within the shack, and then immediately disappear back within it. a million scenarios, all with bad endings, flooded my mind. we continued to sit in silence and apparent fear, until the driver finally returned.

it had been at least ten minutes and there was nothing to speak of for his time away, save for a large, duct-taped package, which he handed to robert to hold for the duration of the drive. we knew. we were no longer frightened tourists. we were drug mules. we were drug mules, in a third world nation, in the middle of the night, in the middle of no where. it was the scariest 3 hours of my entire life. i was unsure of the outcome, only sure i probably would not survive it. and that if i did, i would hate cambodia.

we arrived in siem reap around 1am. we were exhausted, both physically and emotionally; and we had no idea where to go. our driver clearly didn't want to wait around for us to figure it out and dropped us off in a parking lot where several tuk-tuk drivers waited to lay claim on us. 'fresh, white meat, ' i thought. the tuk-tuk driver who got us knew "a great guesthouse" for us. we assumed this meant a guesthouse that would pay him a commission for delivering none-the-wiser tourists. i had previously found a handful of guesthouses in our lonely planet guide, which robert asked the driver to take us to. the driver only assured us that they would be full and the guesthouse he had in mind would be to our liking. robert demanded he take us to the first guesthouse on our short list. he agreed, but not without first expressing his disapproval. when we arrived, the guesthouse was in fact full. robert and the driver then began to debate between his guesthouse and #2 on our list, which he said would also be full.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Monique and i exchanged grimaces and decided we'd rather be ripped off once again than to drive from one closed guesthouse to the next, all night long. robert finally agreed, but not without first expressing his disapproval.

when we arrived at the suggested guesthouse, i stayed in the tuk-tuk while the other three went in to check out the room, assess the price, and decide whether it was worth rest or warranted further exhaustion. at this point, i didn't care how bad it was- i'd had to piss since aranyaprathet and could barely keep my eyes open. plus, mosquitoes were eating me alive and i had been too poor to buy malaria pills before leaving the states. and right then and there, after the arduous night, malaria seemed pretty par for the course. luckily, after ten minutes, monique emerged and waved me in. we checked in, walked up the stairs and watched as the tuk-tuk driver stayed behind to collect his commission.

the room, at first sight, appeared very nice. it was only at close inspection that we realized what a slum it actually was. dirt, mold and rust lined all the bathroom plaster and porcelain. there was no soap, nor showerhead. a sign affixed to the door warned that the hotel took no responsibility for theft, it also asked guests to refrain from bringing prostitutes, weapons or drugs in. the linens had very clearly not been washed in quite some time. the sheets had hair and smears of god-knows-what on them. it's shit, i thought. there are shit stains on these sheets.

but it was 2:30am and sleep was sleep.